For The Someday Book

Book Review: One Nation Under God

Posted on: July 17, 2015

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin M. Kruse, Basic Books, 2015, 352 pp.

One Nation Under GodI read this book as part of a clergy book group that meets monthly. The most surprising part of the whole experience–both of reading the book and discussing it–was how shocked my colleagues were by it. One Nation Under God tells of a cynical collusion and political manipulation of American religiosity that I always believed to be true. My colleagues seemed to never imagine it was actually so bad. Perhaps it is a generational thing. They are Baby Boomers or older. I am part of cynical Generation X, who always expects that political and religious leaders are up to no good.

Kevin Kruse’s historical research in One Nation Under God examines the way forces of business and capitalist interests manipulated religious leaders to support their political causes, particularly conservative religious leaders between the years 1940 and 1970. The initiatives launched by these business leaders result in a changed American religious landscape far beyond their imagination–and their desires.

The story begins with the National Association of Manufacturers and Congregationalist minister Rev. James Fifield, who shared a hatred of the policies of the New Deal. They joined forces to decry the New Deal as a threat to freedom and a challenge to personal morality, with the manufacturers funding Fifield’s religious propaganda for an organization called Spiritual Mobilization. Together, they began to use the phrase “freedom under God” to implant the idea that the United States government and citizens shared a common faith in God that rebuked anything resembling socialism.

Kruse then moves on to examine the rise of Billy Graham and his crusades in the 1950s, the invention of political prayer breakfasts by Abraham Vereide, and the unique way Eisenhower co-opted a shallow, civic faith language to unite the nation behind a conservative agenda.

[These movements] encouraged the spread of public prayer as a political development whose means and motives were distinct from the drama of the Cold War. Working in lockstep to advance Christian libertarianism, these three movements effectively harnessed Cold War anxieties for an already established campaign against the New Deal. (36)

Kruse paraphrases theologian William Lee Miller about religion in the 1950s: “The American people, like Eisenhower, had become very fervent believers in a very vague religion.” (68) Eisenhower, though, used the ideas of Christian libertarianism not “to tear down the central state but instead to prop it up. Piety and patriotism became one and the same, love of God and love of country conflated to the core.” (72)

Kruse traces that conflation through Eisenhower’s own religiosity, the development of the National Prayer Breakfast, the idea of America as a “Christian nation” governed under God’s authority, the introduction of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God we trust” on currency, the Advertising Council’s “Religion In American Life” public service campaign, and even Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and resulting efforts to place plaques of the ten commandments in public places. What developed was a kind of “ceremonial deism,” a term coined in 1962 by Yale Law School Dean Eugene Rostow.

These invocations were ceremonial in the sense that they were merely ornamental. They had no meaningful substance, and as a result, courts routinely held that those who objected to their use had no standing to challenge them. (99)

Even as this shared religiosity was coming together, it was already coming apart. With the introduction of prayer and bible study in the schools in the 1950s, court challenges began over which religious traditions and theological positions would or would not be represented. Kruse carefully documents the court cases ending prayer in schools, followed by efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn those decisions. One of the most interesting aspects of the book, for me, documented the division between clergy and lay leaders over those proposed constitutional amendments. Clergy and religious leaders, including the National Council of Churches, spoke out strongly against prayer in schools.

“It seems that to many of the proponents ‘prayer is prayer,” marveled Reverend Kelley. “They seem unable to realize that some devoutly religious citizens, at least, care what the content of prayer is, and do not wish to engage in prayer whose content is so vague or innocuous as to be ‘non-sectarian.'” (218)

Laity, however, favored the idea of prayer in school (as many still do), which put them at odds with their clergy leadership and raised questions about who actually spoke for the religious communities.

The final chapter examines the partnership between Richard Nixon and Billy Graham during Nixon’s presidency. Nixon strategically used religious language and religious claims to woo voters, and Billy Graham was a huge part of that endeavor. Graham enjoyed the fame and political access he gained, but discovered Nixon was not at all sincere in his own faith or commitments–it was all a pretense to obtain votes. Kruse details all those efforts, before moving into an Epilogue that gives a cursory look at the ongoing developments in “ceremonial deism” in the decades that followed to the present day.

Kruse tells a fascinating history here, one not recounted anywhere else that I know. It was compelling to read and well documented throughout. However, I longed for some perspective from the underside. It seemed an especially glaring absence to me, after finishing The Cross and the Lynching Tree, to read this book about American religious life that ignores the religious motivations and theology of the Civil Rights movement. While it may have been beyond the scope of Kruse’s book to analyze this counter-movement in depth, I longed for him to at least acknowledge its presence and its strength. Martin Luther King Jr., surely a religious leader whose greatness rivals Graham’s, gets only one mention throughout, and that is only as a way to place Graham in the same spot where King spoke in the March on Washington.  The Civil Rights Movement also appealed to Americans’ religious sensibilities in the same era, and Kruse was remiss to ignore it altogether.

Nevertheless, One Nation Under God is a fascinating read and tells a compelling story about the changing nature of religious participation, public prayer, and church membership from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, with repercussions we still feel to the present day. If you have any notions that our ideas about being “one nation under God” stem from some religious or patriotic principle, this book will quickly dissuade you of that mythology.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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